Aisha, a witty and strangely charming 25-year-old from Banki, a town bordering Cameroon, recalled how members of Boko Haram came to her town in 2012 and began preaching their rigid brand of Salafi jihadism. The insurgents then turned to some of the women, asked what they ate, and when they replied, “just rice,” offered them a tantalizing deal. “They would give us a regular allowance of 5,000 naira and better food if we married them,” said Aisha who was so intrigued by the prospect that she asked her then-husband for a divorce, which he granted. The sum of money, most likely doled out monthly, is an incredible sum given 80 percent of rural Nigerians live on less than 400 naira a day. Aisha explained matter-of-factly, “I was tired of my husband and I wanted a rich man…of course I knew there are many rich men in Boko Haram.”

Despite its reputation for gross human rights abuses, particularly against women and girls, it appears that Boko Haram’s stature among the women it courted for marriage is less sullied. Of the seven women I spoke to in a special camp in Maiduguri, which held roughly two dozen militant wives who were “rescued” by the Nigerian military during raids of Boko Haram camps, most claimed that they had willingly married members of Boko Haram. Under the founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and the current leader Abubaker Shekau, who took over after Yusuf’s extrajudicial murder in 2009 by Nigerian security forces, the sect has been involved in the organization of marriages between members. Part of this process involves aqidah, or “creed,” a process of preaching and conversion within Islam that Boko Haram has adopted to recruit members—including a number of women. 

After Aisha left her husband, she joined Boko Haram as a “single woman,” and stayed in a guesthouse with other women like her where she was well treated and fed. “Men would come to me one by one and explain why I should marry them,” said Aisha. After three months, Aisha made her selection: Mohammed, the emir or commander of the Boko Haram cell in Walasah, a town in the northern state of Borno. She was noticeably nostalgic as she described him –a “tall, handsome, and…kind man”—and their wedding. She proudly reported that her bride price was a hefty 100,000 naira ($312) and it was paid directly to her, not her father. Boko Haram has advocated for the direct payment of the bride price to the bride, in line with more moderate scriptural interpretations that conclude that the dowry belongs to the woman. As a civil society activist based in Maiduguri explained to me, according to scripture, “Even the parents are not supposed to touch the dowry.” The majority of the women I spoke with who married Boko Haram members—both voluntarily and involuntarily—reported that they had received their own bride price, though most were sums closer to 1,000 to 5,000 naira ($3-$15).

Life as the commander’s wife was “very sweet,” said Aisha who lived with her husband in a Boko Haram camp before the Nigerian military took her away to the special camp in Maiduguri where she lives today. “There was one hundred percent better treatment as a wife under Boko Haram.” Ticking off the reasons on her henna-stained fingers, she recounted, “My husband gave me 5,000 naira every week [to buy] shoes, bags, makeup of every kind, foundation, lipstick and shadows. There were more gifts, better food.”

Despite its reputation for gross human rights abuses, particularly against women and girls, it appears that Boko Haram’s stature among the women it courts for marriage is less sullied.

Other female members of Boko Haram, even those married or related to lower ranking officers, recalled with fondness about how they were treated. They could request anything from their husbands—clothes, meat, or household items—and the men would conduct raids to fetch it. “I willingly submitted,” said one girl, who requested anonymity. As a teenager, she married her brother’s friend, a well-regarded member of Boko Haram. She is now 21 and living in a displacement camp in Maiduguri with her toddler. She left Boko Haram with her son after her husband took a second wife as she felt she was not receiving enough attention. She also wanted to return to her family, with whom she had little contact over the course of her time with Boko Haram because of their remote location and Boko Haram’s restrictions on members. But even now, she insists that her husband “never maltreated” her.

Falta, a wizened 58-year-old woman who followed her son into the insurgency, asserted, “Some men treated women well before aqidah, but after aqidah they added special treatment and all of the men started treating women better.” Researcher Adam Higazi from Cambridge University’s Centre of African Studies, confirms this. He told me that “in its preaching, Boko Haram has heavily emphasized that ‘men are for women,’ and that husbands are to provide everything for their wives.” Although Falta currently lives in a government run camp in Maiduguri, she expressed an eagerness to return to the insurgency and to her son.

In her position as the commander’s wife (she is often called “Emira”), Aisha “went door-to-door, to give gifts to the Yan Uwa,” which according to the wives of insurgents that were based in Walasah, is the term that Boko Haram uses to describe its members, translating roughly to “we are all one.” Some women were called upon to carry their husband’s weapons as they relocated to a different camp or moved into battle. Aisha was proud of this fact. Her husband even expected her to clean his gun for him. She recalled, shaking her head, exclaiming, “pieces, pieces,” at how complicated it was to take apart the weapon, clean its components, and then reassemble it.

But Aisha seemed to show no remorse that the weapon, which she cleaned and carried, had killed others. When I asked her about female suicide bombers, which Boko Haram is known to use, she said that they were volunteers who “say they want to do an assignment,” after which they are given three months training so that the Boko Haram leadership can “see your mind is right.” Most of these volunteers, according to Aisha, are widows or are sent on a mission with their husband. When pressed about the use of child suicide bombers, Aisha countered by explaining that these attacks were “done as revenge.” “If a seven-year-old girl is a bomber,” she told me, “it is probably because her mother has died, so she is sent out to take revenge on the Nigerian military,” which ostensibly killed her.

Zainab, another wife of a Boko Haram fighter who also lived in Walasah, regaled social workers with details about the inner workings of the insurgency, but as with Aisha, seemed to deflect questions about the group’s violence. She simple said, “Since I am a woman, I don’t know anything about jihad.” Zainab, too, had married into Boko Haram because of the promise of better treatment, which she claims to have received as an insurgent’s wife.

Although Aisha enjoyed certain privileges, especially relative to the other women in Yan Uwa, she was expected to cook and clean for her husband. All of the women, regardless of their age or marital status, were expected to attend gender segregated Koran classes, taught by Boko Haram members, five or six days a week. Zainab insisted that the education she received when she first joined Boko Haram was similar to what she had received as a child in Koran school. “The most noteworthy change” in what she was taught as a child, she recalled, “is that I had to cover myself fully.” Boko Haram mandates that women wear the niqab. Aisha said that she was told by members of the group, “My body is haram if the world sees me, it is haram,” which is Arabic for “forbidden,” so she and other women had to “cover every part of our bodies except for our eyes.”

Another notable change in the role of a Boko Haram wife was that they were prohibited from farming and were kept in isolation as much as possible, in order to follow purdah or “wife seclusion” that some Muslim groups advocate. For Falta, this provision improved her quality of life. She said, with a smile, that when she was living with her son in Walasah there was “no hard work, only cooking and cleaning. Before, [we] had to farm, to collect firewood, but with aqidah it was like women were the head of the house.” She believes that a number of women joined because they heard that wives were “treated so well” by the insurgents.

Women who lived through Boko Haram occupation, March 24, 2015.
Joe Penney / Reuters

Of course, not every woman in Boko Haram joined willingly. Aisha admitted that under her husband’s leadership there was a policy that “if a fighter likes a woman, they take her.” If she is very young, “she is married straight away,” Aisha explained. If she is older, than she is “schooled for three months or so before she is married.” As with Aisha, these young women, known as mustadahib, are placed in a secluded house and receive extensive reeducation. Some of the girls were Christian, others were Muslim; regardless, every girl was put through a reeducation program of sorts. “They preached, preached, preached to them to make them understand [the insurgents’ ideology and objectives],” said Falta. After their training, which varied in intensity according to the girls’ receptiveness and their instructors’ assessments, she said these women appeared willing to marry a member of Boko Haram.

But given that Boko Haram seeks to establish sharia law, its method of punishment is harrowingly medieval. Although many of the wives whom I spoke with were quick to emphasize that three warnings were given before infractions were punished, they recalled public ceremonies in which people were stoned, flogged, or had their limbs amputated.

Falmata, a 16-year-old who was married to an insurgent and is now living in a government-run settlement after being taken by the military during a raid on her former camp, recalled the punishments in detail. In Masa, where she lived with the insurgents for five months, one of their first judgments was that anyone taking a government salary must be killed. After they had taken control of the village, “there was a lot of flogging,” said Falmata. “They would flog the drug users because they believed it would rehabilitate them.” The more serious the infraction, the more brutal the punishment. “For adultery,” said Falmata, “They would bury you alive, up to your head, and then stone you” in a ceremony called rajam, whichis described in the Koran but practiced only in northern Nigeria. The death penalty was also a part of Boko Haram’s rule of law. Informants, which included anyone who had fled the group, “were taken to the outskirts of the city and shot,” explained Falmata.

The insurgents sought to prevent defections through such brutality, as well as through a propaganda campaign aimed at instilling fear of Nigerian soldiers and police. The women were told that the Nigerian security forces, savage and un-Islamic, would kill them if they fled. Falta said that her son had warned her, “If you hear anything about soldiers you run and hide from them in the bush.” Higazi told me that when the wives were first taken from the camps in remote northeast Nigeria to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, they “were surprised that the people in Maiduguri were praying, because they had been told that everyone in the city is kafir,” which is a person who is not Muslim.

Even if that myth was easy to dispel, improving the Nigerian state and its soldiers’ reputations is difficult. Sexual exploitation of and abuses against displaced women by Nigerian police and military are common place in Maiduguri. These abuses lend credence to some of the sect’s claims of governmental malpractice and make it more difficult to dismiss Boko Haram’s propaganda. The popular narrative that all women in Boko Haram are abducted victims is tantalizing in its moral clarity. However, in order to effectively combat the insurgency, it is critical to recognize the ways in which the Nigerian state has pushed these women to seek a better life with Boko Haram.

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  • HILARY MATFESS is a member of the Nigeria Social Violence Research Project at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a research analyst working on issues of governance and security in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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